East San Jose airport switches to unleaded fuel as demands for closure escalate
John McGowan, a spokesman for Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation, announces the switch to unleaded fuel at Reid-Hillview Airport on Monday. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Amid a contentious fight to close an East San Jose airport, officials announced Monday it will switch to unleaded fuel — but the move might not quell opponents’ concerns.

    The announcement came Monday from the Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operation. The organization, which has fought to keep the airport open, reportedly received the first shipment of unleaded fuel over the weekend.

    “We will be providing important updates on the availability of unleaded aviation gasoline at Reid-Hillview Airport, and several other Bay Area airports as well,” John McGowan, a pilot and spokesman for the group, told San José Spotlight on Monday.

    The switch to unleaded fuel comes amid a fight over the future of the 82-year-old, 180-acre East San Jose airport, as a growing number of officials demand its closure citing exposure to unsafe lead levels from planes, safety concerns, noise and a push to use the land for affordable housing. Opponents, however, say the airport serves as a critical hub for smaller planes and emergency operations, including during wildfires.

    Josh Watson, co-owner of AeroDynamic Aviation, one of the four flight schools at the airport, said Monday he’s committed to switching his entire fleet to the new fuel.

    “(The airport) is an excellent resource to the community,” he added. “It allows people in the area access to aviation … if you build more homes, you overload the traffic system, crime goes up, there’s no infrastructure to support the people who are going to live here.”

    Watson said the cost of the fuel and shipping will be more, but he said he’s willing to bear the cost. “Normally it’s an hour and a half to ship fuel here, but with this fuel it will be six days,” he said. “But it’s a cost we’re willing to shoulder if it’s better for the community.”

    A study commissioned by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors revealed that some children who live within 1.5 miles of the airport have elevated blood lead levels. According to data from the county, there are 21 schools and childcare centers surrounding the airport.

    But according to a San José Spotlight analysis, the elevated blood lead levels found in the local study are consistent with the state average and neighboring counties. Out of 17,000 blood samples of youth ages 0-18 taken in the study, only 1.7% show lead levels that call for further testing. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is between 1.5% and 2.6% depending on age. Small amounts of lead can still deteriorate cognitive functions despite the CDC’s threshold.

    The switch to unleaded fuel is unlikely to stop calls from activists to close the airport. Officials and others in favor of the closure held their own news conference about the airport on Monday.

    “I want to prioritize the health of the community, the people around Reid-Hillview, to protect those families,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who has led the push to close the airport for years.

    Supervisor Cindy Chavez calls for the closure Reid-Hillview Airport on Aug. 16. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Those in support of the airport’s closure cite environmental justice issues, saying the airport has disproportionately exposed residents in the heavily Latino and low-income individuals to lead poisoning.

    “The Reid-Hillview Airport is a prime example of the ongoing systemic racism that has been imposed in our community for decades,” read an Instagram post by Close Reid Hillview Airport, a group that has supported the closure of the airport and a petition that has garnered more than 1,600 signatures as of Monday. “The fact of the matter is, there is no safe level of lead. Even the most minimal amount of lead exposure can lead to numerous negative health outcomes for men, women and children.”

    Those in favor of closing the airport also have the support of former county Supervisor Blanca Alvarado, who led the charge to close the airport decades ago.

    “It is way past time the Board of Supervisors stand with we, the people,” Alvarado said. “Not just those with special interests. I have lived a long life. And to me, the greatest gift will be Aug. 17 when the Board of Supervisors gives a yes vote on closure. Close the damn airport.”

    Former county Supervisor Blanca Alvarado supports closing Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    The county Board of Supervisors voted to start the process to close the airport in November.

    Maricela Lechuga, a county airport commissioner who started a petition to close the airport, said many pilots resist using unleaded fuel.

    “I think that this is a very insincere attempt by pilots to say they’re going to now start using unleaded fuel because I have heard directly from pilots say that they are not going to use unleaded fuel and that it is their right under federal law,” she said. “And it is true to an extent—there isn’t really a way for the county to make sure they’re using unleaded fuel. So the only option is to shut the airport (down).”

    But McGowan said 80% of the planes at the airport now are able to use the fuel, with goals to make it 100%. Approximately 68% of the single-piston engine planes in the U.S. are able to use the unleaded fuel.

    “This is going to roll through the industry very quickly,” McGowan said. “Those who argue that this is going to be dragged out over years and years and years don’t really understand the dynamics of how fast this will transition once the government finally blesses the formula for the next generation of gas.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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